Here's a thought experiment: Imagine for a moment that the quarter of a million secret government cables from the State Department had been leaked, not to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, but to Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times.
First, let's state the obvious: The Times would never have returned the confidential files to the Obama administration. Most likely, the newspaper would have attempted to engage with State to try to scrub life- and source- threatening details from the cables — as Assange and his lawyers did.
And if the administration had refused to participate in that effort — as it did with WikiLeaks? The Times would have done what any serious news organization has the imperative to do: It would have published, at a pacing of its own choosing, any cable it deemed to be in the public interest. In this digital age, it's likely the Times would have even created a massive searchable database of the cables.
The optics of the information dump would likely have been very different — overlaid with the Times' newspaper-of-record gravitas. But the effect would have been identical: Information that the U.S. government finds embarrassing, damning, and even damaging would have seen the light of day.
Now let's extend the thought experiment:
How would you react if top American conservatives were today baying baying for Bill Keller's blood? If Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had called on Keller to be prosecuted as a "high-tech terrorist"? If Sarah Palin were demanding that Keller be hunted down like a member of Al Qaeda? If Newt Gingrich were calling for the Times editor to be assassinated as an "enemy combatant."
What if Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, had successfully pressured the Times' web hosting company to boot the newspaper off its servers? What if Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal suddenly stopped processing subscriptions for the paper?
Imagine that students at Columbia University's graduate school of international affairs had been warned not to Tweet about the New York Times if they had any hopes of ever working at the State Department.
Imagine U.S. soldiers abroad being told that they'd be breaking the law if they read even other news outlets' coverage of the Times' exclusives.
Imagine that the Library of Congress had simply blocked all access to the New York Times site.
You can't imagine this actually happening to the New York Times. Yet this has been has been exactly the federal and corporate response to Assange and WikiLeaks.
The behavior is outrageous on its face and totalitarian in its impulse. Indeed, we should all be alarmed at the Orwellian coloring of the Obama administration's official response to the publishing of the cables:
"President Obama supports responsible, accountable, and open government at home and around the world, but this reckless and dangerous action runs counter to that goal."
Secrecy is openness. What the fuck?!
Listen: You don't have to approve of Assange or his political views; you can even believe he's a sex criminal. It doesn't matter. What's at stake here isn't the right of one flouncy Australian expat to embarrass a superpower. It's freedom of the press. And it's a dark day for journalists everywhere when the imperatives of government secrecy begin to triumph over our First Amendment.